At the risk of being racist, in India there seems to be a direct relationship between the filthiness of a river, and its holiness — Haridwar was the perfect example.
An hour’s drive from Rishikesh, Haridwar is another town on the Ganges, yet it felt like a whole world away. Haridwar is much more significant for Hindus, for it’s where Vishnu, the preserver and protector of the universe, dropped divine nectar and left a footprint. But unlike Rishikesh’s relatively clean waters, here the Ganges is fucking filthy.
I was shunted off a cramped bus and onto the highway, dodging a speeding truck as I jumped over the centre-barrier. After traversing a dusty field, I passed a rubbish heap where people were shitting in the open. Sigh. I’d only be here for a few hours, while I waited for the nightbus to Jaipur.
Compared to Rishikesh, Haridwar had a more reverent atmosphere. I exited the field/public-toilet and reached the Ganges, which was criss-crossed by rusting steel bridges. The river was shallow here, and women sat in the middle, digging with their hands. It was only after one came up with a couple of coins that I realised their purpose.
But I was dismayed to see that in Haridwar, the Ganges was the horrible milky-grey colour that water becomes when you handwash your clothes. Strips of cloth littered the rocks while plastic detritus floated on the surface. This was the holy Mother Ganga. The pristine waters of the Himalayas were defiled, and I got my first understanding of what happens to a river when 400 million people live nearby.
I watched a man receiving blessings from a sadhu, the religious ascetics you find all over India. They roam the country, sleeping rough or in temples, living on donations. Distinctive for their saffron coloured robes, some wear no clothes. Others adorn themselves in beads and flowers, vibrant paint covering their faces.
At dusk I made my way over to the Har-Ki-Pairi ghat, an auspicious set of stairs leading down to the Ganges. Thousands of people had gathered for the evening prayers. It was chaos, guards were barking orders that nobody was listening to. Fights broke out as people pushed for the seats closest to the river. This was no austere church service.
The din increased as priests in white robes started singing, their voices in perfect unison. The sea of multi-coloured pilgrims joined in, before sending flickering flames down the river. The brave ones plunged into the water, which I’d read was too polluted for bathing.
While minding my own business, two young guys approached me. They demanded some money for cleaning the Ganges. “You a tourist!” one said, as if this piece of logic would make me agree. I’d thought it was a practical joke, then realised the reality. Come on, I said, if you’re going to scam me, at least have a believable cause. Cleaning the river? I might as well burn my money.